All things open

February 13th, 2007

Open source, open standards, open access: what’s the difference?

Last week I went to one of Russell Brown’s (the media commentator and journalist, of Hard News | Public Address fame) Karajoz Great Blends. It was held at the Boatshed in Wellington, a great venue on the waterfront.

The first half was a discussion with Matt Heath and Chris Stapp of Back of the Y, featuring clips from their various videos, and a trailer for The Devil Dared Me To, which premieres at SXSW next month. Even though splatter movies don’t usually appeal to me (with the exception of Shaun of the Dead), Matt and Chris were very funny, and I might even go to their movie.

The second half was a panel featuring Chris DiBona, currently employed at Google and a former editor at Slashdot; Rob McKinnon, the developer behind theyworkforyou.co.nz, Alastair Thompson, from Scoop, and David Hume from the e-government unit at the State Services Commission. The discussion covered a range of topics, including the Google Maps API, voting machine software, and One Laptop Per Child (Chris DiBona had one of the prototypes, and they’re very cool).

theyworkforyou is an interesting mashup of information primarily from Parliamentary Services, intended to help voters understand what our elected representatives are up to. But what struck me most was a question that indicated quite a lot of confusion about the difference between open source software, open standards, and open access. The questioner suggested that they were all more or less the same thing, and to me they are very different, but related.

An open standard means that the definition of a data/information structure is available to anyone; the Wikipedia article on open standards says an open standard can be implemented by anyone, and that one of their purposes is to promote interoperability. The article also identifies an ‘open format’ as a format for data that has no royalties or other limitations. Open source software involves providing access to a program’s source code. To me, software involves an exectuable process, and that’s what the code does: expresses an algorithm that can be executed (or studied, changed, or redistributed). Open access is the most straightforward of the three: it just means that anyone can access the data/information/publication, without any barriers (assuming they have access to the necessary hardware and/or software).

So where does the confusion come from? I remember a conversation I had with someone a number of years ago (probably 12, or even 15), in which they argued that software and data were the same thing. I was never convinced. To me data is something that software acts on, and it exists independently of the software. Do people have to write code to understand the difference, or am I being too literal in making such clear distinctions between the three?

Entry Filed under: Free/open source


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